Title: The Cosmopolitans
Author: Anjum Hasan
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Price: Rs 499
To turn an ailment into the subject of art or literature takes more than courage and intuition — it needs what the Greeks and later the Romantics, for want of a psychosocial vocabulary, called “suffering”, the dukha of our old treatises on art. Baban, the artist who’s returning to his hometown Bangalore after having conquered New York and its collectors and galleries, and his creator, Anjum Hasan, turn to the suffering induced by nostalgia as the subject of their most recent work. Baban’s installation work is titled Nostalgia: “Nostalgia was big. Grainy black and white news played on a gigantic vintage TV set … The news on the TV, focussing on the indistinct face of the newscaster as she mouthed statistics about death in the jungles and government scams, was familiar… Wherever in the world Nostalgia went, the news on its TV screen would always be the previous day’s… reminding us…that ‘we are victims of today, hostage to tomorrow, and nostalgic for yesterday’”. Hasan’s novel could well have shared the same title since the subject of its indictment is exactly that: “There were people … for whom the past was a weapon. All protest could be muzzled by forwarding the argument about ancientness. Ancient things were more than history. They became sacred and only infidels tampered with the sacred. In between was Qayenaat for whom the world was always new”.
In between this new and news, always stale and arriviste, history and tradition, religion and the secular, patentable individualism and tradition-drugged “folk”, falls the shadow of The Cosmopolitans. In the fiercely intelligent Book One of the novel, we find an artist returning to Bangalore, its art scene brought alive in Hasan’s insider portrayals of artists, critics and collectors, real and generic at once. One such art lover (“She was not an artist but who said art was only about making things? Wasn’t it also manifest in the kind of life she had built for herself?”) is Qayenaat, she purposively without a surname, once the America-feted artist’s love. After pages of the most brilliant dialogues and a series of misunderstandings, Qayenaat ends up committing a murder, actually two – of a piece of art and an art critic, and, therefore by proxy, an all-knowing art criticism. She flees to a war-ravaged small town to learn about a dance form that bureaucratic modern India now labels as “folk dance”. In that atmosphere of revolt and repression, with a “King” on one side and a Maoist movement on the other, Qayenaat finds herself in a quagmire of love, lust, half-knowledge and suspicion, only to return to the old lost tune of homecoming.
Hasan, who made us aware of her mastery of craft in her debut novel, Lunatic in my Head, now gives us a novel of ideas, one that is utterly necessary in an India where money is the only antibiotic that passes for both diagnosis and cure. I found myself returning, in spirit, to my teenaged admiration of Somerset Maugham’s Paul Gauguin-inspired The Moon and Sixpence, that book which had allowed me to see, for the first time, the thick life of art and the artist judged and set against a sixpence society. The Cosmopolitans is a must-read for every person who, in spite of its irony, knows, like the King in the novel, that “Being a modern Indian is hard work”.
There are enlightening discourses on art and the artist played out against the controlling and censorious urges of religion and state, filthy capitalism and folk worship of “sub-celebrities”, but my favourite parts are those where Hasan, in that seemingly dispassionate and piercing gaze that she has made all her own, writes about the artist as conman. Nostalgia, whether as art that survives on being tethered to the past, of which Baban’s installation is a brilliant invention, or as ideology, the unqualified folk belief to which a King-without-a-kingdom lives his life, gives this truly artistic novel its structure. What I personally carried from it is a cosmopolitan moral: Nostalgia must die.
Sumana Roy is a poet & writer in Siliguri